Last week, President Obama hosted a summit on refugees, bringing together world leaders who pledged their countries to increase financing of humanitarian support for the 65 million people who have been displaced by conflict worldwide, promised to increase the number of refugees accepted for resettlement, and committed to providing a more dignified life for refugees by increasing access to education and employment opportunities in frontline nations that are hosting large refugee populations.
Against the backdrop of some of the virulent rhetoric directed at refugees – both during the low moments of our presidential campaign and by ultra-nationalist parties across the pond – it was a remarkable moment of leadership at a time when the world sorely needs it. The United States committed to increasing by $1 billion our financial support for refugees and pledged to welcome 110,000 refugees for resettlement in the coming fiscal year.
Towards the end of his speech, President Obama referenced a letter he received from a six-year-old boy who upon seeing the image of Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo asked if the Syrian boy could come live with him and his family: “The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness… Imagine the suffering we could ease, and the lives we could save, and what our world would look like if, seeing a child who’s hurting anywhere in the world, we say, ‘We will give him a family and he will be our brother.’”
This humanity stands in stark contrast to the kind of abstraction and dehumanization that is required to, say, make offhand comparisons of refugees to candy in order to score cheap political points. It is a contrast that has been much on D’s mind as his work has taken him to five of Rwanda’s six refugee camps in the past two months.
Rwanda is one of those frontline states that made new commitments to improving the lives of refugees living within its borders. At last count, the country hosts approximately 165,000 people, mostly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have been displaced by conflict – a number that keeps slowly inching up due to ongoing instability in the region.
This may seem like a relatively small number compared to the nearly 5 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria or the almost 1 million South Sudanese refugees who have fled their country in the last two and a half years, but it certainly doesn’t feel small – not in a country the size of Maryland that is the most densely populated on the continent, and second in population density among African countries only to the island nation of Mauritius. (Maryland’s population, incidentally, is roughly half of Rwanda’s, a comparison that somewhat understates the disparity given that the latter is still a mostly agricultural nation.)
It’s not just the contrast between words meant to inspire hope and action and those that reinforce humanity’s darkest impulses that has been on D’s mind. The words that we use matter. We can’t help but wonder if some of the abovementioned abstraction owes in part to the fact that the very word “refugee” allows a measure of distance to creep in and creates an aura of otherness.
Referring to people as refugees provides semantic cover, a means to avoid engaging the reality that what we’re talking about are people – people like you and me; people who laugh and cry just like we do; people whose lives have been hopelessly turned upside down by events well beyond their control; people who only want a measure of peace, safety, and comfort.